Usain Bolt dishes his insight into the next wave of track stars from the United States before the 2020 Olympics.
With the 2019 edition of the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships now behind us, our attention turns to the world championships in late September. Several Americans—Christian Coleman in the 100 meters, Noah Lyles in the 200 meters and Fred Kerley or Michael Norman in the 400 meters—could be favored to win gold in their respective events. The United States has not swept the short sprints since 2007, before Usain Bolt became Usain Bolt.
September's IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar will be the first global outdoor championship contested without the world record holder. It is a new era for the sport, and an exciting one. The United States' next generation of sprint talent is looking very promising. Justin Gatlin, who beat Bolt for gold at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, is still going strong at 37 years old and will attempt to defend his gold medal in the fall while also hoping to run at the 2020 Summer Games.
As for Bolt, he's enjoying retirement as an ambassador for his sponsors, playing some professional soccer and having no plans to come out of retirement. Sports Illustrated caught up with Bolt while he was in New York City after surprising a group of runners and educating them on proper hydration practices. We discussed his outlook on the current state of sprinting, Gatlin and more. The following interview was edited lightly for clarity.
Check out SI's full 2020 Olympics preview, with athletes and storylines to watch now that we are one year out from the Games.
Sports Illustrated: We’re less than a year away from the Tokyo Olympics so before we go any further, can we completely rule out a comeback? Zero percent chance that you come back?
Usain Bolt: Zero percent chance.
SI: If you got back on the track right now for a 100, what do you think you could run?
UB: (Laughs) I don’t know. In my mind, I always overhype myself. I remember one time my coach asked me that question and I told him that I could probably run like 10.1. He said, ‘No, you can’t.’ He gave me like 10.4 but right now I think I could run like 10.5, maybe? You never know.
SI: The 200 was your favorite event though. So you couldn’t dip under 20 anymore?
UB: Definitely not. I think I could run a better 200 than 100 right now. I’d be close to that 20-second mark but not under.
SI: If you read enough about track or watch races nowadays, you hear a lot about ‘finding the next Usain Bolt.’ Should we cut that out and let these kids be themselves? It could be a little dangerous to always be looking for this next great because there will never be another you.
UB: It’s true. I don’t think they’re going to stop though. I think younger kids should focus on trying to be the best versions of themselves. I set standards. I wanted to be as great or greater than Michael Johnson. That’s the type of aim the kids should have. You want to be as great as me or greater. I feel like that’s how you should set standards for yourself. ‘I want to be better than Usain Bolt. I want to be faster than him.’ That’s how you get there.
SI: Let’s run through some of those young kids right now. The first one is Noah Lyles, the 22-year-old who has run 19.50 for 200 meters. (Note: On Sunday, Lyles won the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships 200 and will be focusing on that distance at September’s IAAF World Championships, where he is favored to become the first American to win gold since 2007.) What impresses you about him?
UB: For me, it’s his sheer power. I think he has a lot to learn when it comes to corner running but I think he shows a lot of power and drive. That’s one thing I respect about him.
SI: He’s got the pre-race and post-race celebrations down pat where I think he’s filled your shoes pretty well.
UB: He’s a character and the sport needs that. I explain it to a lot of guys that people like to see personality and who you are not just as a runner.
SI: He’s run 19.5 and he’s getting up there on the all-time list. He now sits as the fourth-fastest ever. At what point would you start to get nervous? What time would he have to run to be like, ‘I have to watch out for this kid?’ (Bolt’s world record of 19.19 has stood since the 2009 IAAF World Championships.)
UB: I know it’s important for people to talk about world records. World records come and go. For me, I hope he doesn’t get it very soon (laughs). It’s been there for a while and hopefully it can last a couple more years. I look forward to seeing the next youngster breaking world records and running fast because it’s good for the sport. People are always trying to focus on times. I was focused on the championships. That’s what made me who I am and made me great. For me, yes, it’s good to run fast but at the end of the day, you should always focus on getting to the Olympics, winning, getting to the world championships and doing the same. I’m not going to be too stressed. When he wins his first Olympics and then a second one, that’s when I’ll start to worry.
SI: There’s Matthew Boling. Everyone is making a big deal about him being so fast as a high schooler. It’s interesting how much attention he’s getting.
UB: It’s his technique. That’s what caught my eye. It’s not even that he’s running that fast but at that age, with the technique that he has—for me, it looks really smooth. He’s running high. He’s running tall. For me, that’s a big deal. Hopefully, people will not try to do too much or put too much pressure on him so he can actually come out. At that age, when you put expectations at that age sometimes a lot of people can’t handle that pressure.
SI: Could he have a future in the 100 or does he look like a better long jumper?
UB: It’s what he wants to do. The glory is always in the 100 meters. Hopefully, he sees what he wants and gets it done.
SI: Christian Coleman. What sticks out to you about him? (Coleman beat Bolt and took silver behind Justin Gatlin at the 2017 IAAF World Championships 100-meter final. In 2018, the 23-year-old ran 9.79 for the fastest time of the year.)
UB: He’s a kid that you can tell has no fear. From competing with him at the world championships, I can tell you that he has no fear. He wants to compete and that’s a big thing. He’s a very good starter and undoubtedly one of the best that I’ve ever seen competing.
SI: He’s also bringing a little trash talk to the 100. We’ve seen him get into it with Noah Lyles. (In May, Lyles beat Coleman in the Shanghai Diamond League 100-meter dash and then tweeted, ‘“Some of y’all got the game messed up. The name of the game is World medals. But PRin in May is cool for social media doe.” Lyles told NBC that Coleman doesn’t like him and has acknowledged a rivalry.) Do you like that?
UB: You do what you want to do. It’s what works for you. Justin Gatlin did it and it worked for him over the years. I was never a trash talker. I just showed up and did what I had to do. If it works for him and helps him get motivated, why not do it?
SI: You brought up Gatlin. Are you still impressed that he’s going this fast at 37? (Gatlin has run 9.87 for 100 meters in 2019.)
UB: I’m impressed that he’s still running! (Laughs) Kim Collins [of Saint Kitts and Nevis] ran until he was like 40 or 41. That just goes to show that if you take care of your body, then anything is possible. I’ve said over the years that Gatlin is one of the biggest competitors that I’ve ever seen. I know that no matter what these kids are running, when he shows up to the championships then they’ll have to show up. Mentally he’s ready and he’s going to be running.
SI: When’s the last time that you talked to him because I noticed you don’t follow him on Instagram?
UB: Surprisingly, I was going through my Instagram the other day and I saw this thing that I think he does every Monday. He does these inspirational talks every Monday. I looked up and saw that he was following me. I thought about it for a second and was like, ‘Should I follow him?... Maybe next time.’
SI: Next time? What’s it take to get the follow?
UB: (Laughing) I don’t know. We’ve been like enemies throughout our whole career, should I follow him now? I thought about it but we’ll see.
SI: On the women’s side of the sprints, I feel like we’re not making as big of a deal as we should with Sha'carri Richardson and the 10.75 that she ran as a freshman at LSU.
UB: I do not know about that one.
SI: You don’t? Collegiate record?
UB: No. I don’t know about this one.
SI: An LSU freshman woman ran 10.75 in the 100. This is the first that you’re hearing about this?
UB: Yeah, it’s the first time that I’m hearing about this.
SI: You’ve also got Briana Williams in Jamaica as the next rising star there. (The 17-year-old ran 10.94 in the 100 meters at the Jamaican Championships in June) These are the next big stars on the women’s side.
UB: Yeah, I know Briana … Man, 10.7 is no joke, bro. That’s no joke for a college kid. That’s good for the sport. If these kids keep doing what they’re doing and running at this level then it’s a wonderful thing because then it’s exciting for the sport to see what’s next to come. I’m happy to see that. I look forward to watching them at the next Olympics because clearly, she’s going to make the team. (Laughs)
SI: The last that a lot of people saw of you was when you ran that 4.22 40-yard dash during Super Bowl week. (He tied John Ross’s NFL Combine record.) How out of shape were you and what was the effort percentage there?
UB: I was definitely out of shape. I just did normal training trying to keep myself fit personally.
SI: What’s that look like nowadays?
UB: Every day, I have a trainer that comes to my house and helps me workout because I think I put on a little bit too much weight, personally. I’m trying to get back. On that day, I’ll never forget that I ran a first one just to warm up. I was like, ‘I think I could do this.’ I was in my shoes and I didn’t want to pull my hamstring. When I did a second one, my manager looks at me and says, ‘Yo. Don’t do anymore.’ I was like, ‘Nah. Don’t worry. I’m ready now.’ I was just testing my legs because I hadn’t run in so long. I didn’t want to pull a hammy or anything. After that, it was easy. I just ran and gave it my all, as fast as I could. One of the main reasons that I wanted to run fast was that every year when I was running track, there was always an NFL player saying, “Oh, we can beat Usain Bolt. I can do this...Blah, Blah.” For me to run 4.22 in my sweats, out of shape and one year retired, that’s all talk.
SI: In soccer, there’s a headline like that every other day.
UB: You expect that. People always say Mbappe is quick. He’s actually pretty quick though, no joke. I’m used to that.
SI: As a distance runner, I have to take this opportunity to ask you about the mile. You always say that you have no idea what you’d be able to run for the mile.
UB: No idea.
SI: You’d rather run like 20 300s instead of an all-out mile. You could break five minutes if you wanted to.
UB: I don’t know. I really don’t want to know. For me, the mile is no joke. For years, I almost had that run with Mo Farah because people wanted to see it. Whether it was an 800 or 600, it was difficult but I could never do a mile.
SI: Everyone has a price tag. What would your price tag have been for that showdown?
UB: I would’ve had to have been in good shape. If I was in good shape, I probably have tried the 600. I wouldn’t have gone to 800. Because we used to run a few 600s in training.
SI: Central Park is right outside. Six miles all the way around. You think I can beat you around that?
UB: Probably. Yeah, probably.
SI: I finally found my distance where I’m better than Bolt.